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July 11th, 2016

Bodies that (don’t) matter: Private security guards in conflict zones

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


July 11th, 2016

Bodies that (don’t) matter: Private security guards in conflict zones

4 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sangita Thebe LimbuSouth Asian nationals are frequently recruited by private companies to work as security staff in conflict zones. Following the deaths of multiple Nepalese citizens in a recent Taliban attack in Kabul, Sangita Thebe Limbu reflects on the mismatch in value attached to the lives of migrants from less economically developed countries in contrast to the staff from Western countries.

In a recent Taliban suicide attack in Kabul, an estimated 14 Nepalese and two Indian citizens working as private security guards at the Canadian Embassy were killed. This tragic incident raises serious concerns about the treatment of migrant workers in conflict zones, particularly in a context where military and security operations, previously a domain of national armed forces, are being privatised. It also reveals Nepal’s dire economy, largely remittance dependent, and its dismal state of governance that has resulted in an estimated 1600 people migrating for foreign employment every day.

In the last 10 years, Department of Foreign Employment in Nepal has issued some 9,000 permits allowing nationals to work in Kabul. However, the actual number of Nepali migrants working in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan is predicted to be much higher, as in many cases, recruitment takes place through informal channels and there is no official mechanism to record the number of returnees. The increased migration of Nepali workers along with many others from developing countries, to high-risk conflict zones is interrelated with rapid privatisation of security and military services.

Privatised security contractors

In 2006, War on Want produced an influential report that analysed the threats associated with proliferation of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) following the declaration of ‘war on terror’ and subsequent military invasions. The multi-billion dollar PMSC industry now comprises of hundreds of companies operating throughout the globe selling military and security services to governments, international institutions such as the UN and private companies.

PMSCs provide a wide range of services such as direct combat, intelligence services, training combat, security in conflict zones, post-conflict reconstruction and so on. In Iraq and Afghanistan, with declining presence of the US and allied troops, security services is increasingly outsourced to PMSCs. In addition, PMSCs’ clientele includes private corporations such as Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and other multinationals seeking investment opportunities.

As an industry that profits from war and political conflicts, PMSCs have come under scrutiny and faced allegations of human rights abuses, a lack of accountability, illegal weapons trading, and catalysing or exacerbating political conflicts. Despite that, PMSCs are gradually becoming the accepted norm as they help governments and private organisations evade responsibilities without being implicated in direct military/security operations and their far-reaching ramifications.

As highlighted in the recent case of Nepali workers, there has been commotion around whether responsibility in the aftermath of the tragic deaths lies with the Canadian government, the British PMSC Sabre International that employed the workers, or the Nepali government for failing to protect its citizens or all three of them.

If we are to argue that, the employing PMSC should take the responsibility as they are the direct employers and are also in charge of upholding safety protocols (as one of the criticisms was that the minibus carrying the security guards did not meet the required safety standards), the question is what mechanism is in place to hold them accountable?

An International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) was launched in 2010, in consultation with PMSCs, governments and civil societies. However, ICoC is a voluntary code of conduct based on self-regulation rather than a legally binding framework. In the absence of the latter, it becomes difficult to hold PMSC accountable for any wrongdoings whether it is about their murky operations in conflict zones or how they treat their employees.

Bodies that matter

Despite the high risks, many people from Nepal and other developing countries migrate through various formal and informal channels to take up higher salaried employments in conflict zones. Faced by the prospect of chronic unemployment and low wages in their home countries, people sign up in the hope of securing a better future for their families in the long-term.

Recruiting employees from poor countries puts PMSCs in a powerful and profitable bargaining position. For instance, there was a case reported where Sabre International was getting $1700 for every Ugandan security guard recruited from the US government but the actual pay of the security guard was $700 and below.

Considering inflation and purchasing power parity, private security guards from developing countries may receive higher salary than what they would earn at home but the risks involved are extremely high, which leads to the question of why do governments contract out security in the first place? In this case, the Canadian government has protected itself from any financial liability towards the murdered private guards. This begs the question: what would be the implications if Canadian security guards were killed instead of South Asian guards?

The outsourcing of security by the US and allied powers reflects a similar rationale. These countries are deterred from employing their own citizens by the likely public outcry and subsequent political costs that would be incurred if these workers were harmed. Thus, foreign guards from economically poor countries become the recruits, risk minimisers and politically dispensable bodies safeguarding the interests of the rich and powerful.

Whose responsibility?

Following the incident, the Nepal government has imposed a ban on entry of Nepali workers to Afghanistan. However, it is highly uncertain a blanket ban approach will work, especially considering the fact many migrants working in Afghanistan and other conflict zones use informal channels to get there and remain largely undocumented.

The Government of Canada has condemned the attacks and recently held a memorial service for the deceased guards in the Embassy in Kabul. However, although Sabre International has committed US$ 30,000 in compensation to the families of each of the Kabul attack victims, the Canadian government remains silent when it comes to compensation for the victims’ families, and the diplomatic and business negotiations required to address the treatment of private security guards working to protect the embassy and its staff.

This is a highly hypocritical stance on the part of the Canadian government that has an extensive travel policies when it comes to the protection of its own public service staff working abroad such as $500,000 travel accident insurance, medical evacuation, dependant care and so on. Similar protocols and safety insurance schemes are in place for governmental officials and development workers from Western countries. In contrast, it seems foreign workers from developing countries could not even get a proper vehicle to transport them to their place of work. This reaffirms the economic inequalities and hierarchies of lives characterising the globalised privatised military and security operations.

To avoid similar tragedy in future, a possible way forward would be regulation of the PMSC industry through development of legally binding framework. In order to do so, inter-governmental diplomatic negotiations among countries that are either clients (e.g. the US) or labour force suppliers to the industry is important. The UN Human Rights Council has been developing a binding convention for the regulation of PMSCs, which is a positive step. However, the PMSC industry itself is economically and politically powerful so a backlash against legal regulation is to be expected. As for Nepal, it is one of the many wake up calls that relying on remittances without a long-term economic vision and strategies is anything but sustainable.

Cover image: Canadian Police and Peace officers in Kabul gathered together with Canadian Embassy staff to mark the Police and Peace Officers National Memorial Day 2012. Credit: Canada in Afghanistan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Note:  A version of this article originally appeared in the Nepali Times on 22 June 2016. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Sangita Thebe LimbuSangita Thebe Limbu is studying Gender, Development and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is a regular contributor to South Asia @ LSE, you can view her previous posts here.

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